The Other Columbus: The Grammys aren't dismantling the master’s house

Now is the time to check-in and make sure our movements are doing the work we claim must be done

Scott Woods
Lil Baby performs "The Bigger Picture".

Despite my indifference to the existence of the Grammys, this year’s edition  — specifically Lil Baby’s performance of “The Bigger Picture”  — generated reactions that were impossible to ignore. 

The most notable critic of the performance was Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, who didn’t have much to say about the song itself so much as the appearance of activist Tamika Mallory. What Rice posted on social media I am forbidden to recap directly, but the gist is that she took what she perceived as performative activism to task with, shall we say, extreme prejudice. And it wasn’t the first time in recent weeks that she’s weighed in on the matter. 

Recall that Tamir Rice was shot in Cleveland six years ago. Recall that he was only 12 years old, and the third nationally mourned case of a Black person killed by police that year alone, preceded by Eric Garner and Michael Brown. In that time, Rice’s family and community haven’t received an ounce of justice, and no movement has changed that reality for them. Samaria Rice has every right to question and criticize the movements that have acted in her son’s name, let alone a Grammy performance. 

It is difficult to reconcile the attention, opportunities and resources afforded some activists while families and communities of victims languish in pain and injustice. Activists are scoring book deals and appearing on stages and news outlets in front of millions of people, which of course generate other opportunities for engagement and, frankly, paychecks. Yet there remains no official recompense for the families of the slain from any quarter. The Black Lives Matter foundation came into $90 million in 2020. That is a sea change level of resources. And while it may be unfair to expect the group to know what to do with that money in, say, six months, it will be imperative to look at  — and criticize  — what it has and hasn’t done in, say, the length of an agreeable president’s term. And if none of the initiatives such abundant resources make possible have sought to heal the families or communities of the victims on their banners, that is a Jericho wall that deserves to come down. 

Activist accountability is as old as movements. Someone has always questioned whether or not a particular expression of activism was the right one. Martin Luther King, Jr. was surrounded by people questioning whether or not non-violence was effective. The Black Panthers were rocked not only by assaults from the state, but plagued internally by questions about its goals and methods. Informed criticism is a part of activism, and where it does not exist, failure soon follows.

Of course, we must be sure to identify performative activism versus one’s ability to contribute. Lil Baby may be giving us every productive thing he has to offer, and we have to make room for that if that’s the case. But where more can be done, more should, and I’m more inclined to criticize an activist with slick branding than I am a rapper when the gauge is “who is looking out for Samaria Rice and not just keeping her son’s name in their mouth?” 

This is not yet an interrogation. This is a harbinger. Now is the time to check-in and make sure our movements are doing the work we claim must be done. In 1984, writer and activist Audre Lorde gave birth to one of the coldest quotes in all of activism: “The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.” 

The inverse of that idea is that the tools of the servant’s house can very much dismantle the servant’s house, and have done so over and over again in instances where stewardship was not the priority of the servant.